The masked Qassam Brigades fighter adjusts his AK-47 assault rifle before he slides into a chair in the Gaza office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Hello, Condoleezza Rice. You have to deal with me now. There is no Abu Mazen [Abbas] any more,” the fighter jokes in an imaginary phone call to the then-United States secretary of state. Around him, fighters with the armed wing of Hamas snap photos of themselves.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Fatah lost the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and was unhappy with the result, attacking the winners, Hamas.
This spelled not only a political fracturing but also a geographical one. The Palestinians split into the occupied West Bank, partially governed by the PA, and Gaza under Hamas.
The situation had remained frozen since then – until now when Palestinians’ political future seems more uncertain than ever.
Israel’s stated objective for its current bombardment and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’s surprise attacks on October 7 in southern Israel has been to take out the armed group.
If Israel is successful, the return of the PA to the beleaguered enclave is being touted as a possibility. But will it return? And can it?
Gaza under Hamas
Under Hamas, the Gaza Strip has been besieged, impoverished by Israel and assaulted on five occasions in the past 17 years.
In this latest assault, the Palestinian political future looks very precarious.
Israel said it aims to destroy Hamas entirely and that is why it launched an all-out assault on the Gaza Strip on October 7.
Israeli raids, settler violence and settlement expansions in the occupied West Bank are among the reasons Hamas launched its attacks on October 7, Izzat al-Rasheq, a member of Hamas’s Political Bureau, said.
“We warned the Israelis and the international community that this relentless pressure will result in an explosion, but they did not listen,” al-Rasheq told Al Jazeera, adding that incursions on Al-Aqsa Mosque, thousands of unjustly detained Palestinians, and the blockade on Gaza all played a role as well.
In a scenario in which Israel succeeds in eliminating Hamas somehow, it has been suggested by the US that the PA take over the beleaguered enclave.
So far, Israel does not agree, but what do the Palestinians think of the PA? Can it return to Gaza? And can Hamas be destroyed?
Collusion vs confrontation
The crux of the divide between the two most dominant players in Palestinian politics is their differing approaches to the Palestinian cause.
While Fatah and the PA, whose current leadership is one and the same, focus on cooperation with Israel, Hamas’s strategy is to confront Israel militarily, said Aboud Hamayel, a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Hamayel said, mimicking what he said is the PA’s defeatist tone.
The PA’s support base in the West Bank is based on a transactional relationship with Israel, the analyst said. However, some Fatah factions do take part in the armed struggle in the West Bank, where the movement is more vocal and diverse than the PA, he added.
Fatah still exists in Gaza, where it is now in the opposition. Its supporters there are split between loyalty to Abbas and former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, who has been in exile in the United Arab Emirates for 10 years, Hamayel said.
The PA has international recognition and receives funding and tax revenues. In turn, it manages security in its territory, theoretically freeing Israel from dealing with day-to-day Palestinian life, Hamayel said, except when Israel conducts raids and arrests resisting Palestinians.
The post-war question
Fatah does want to achieve unity with Hamas, according to the group’s spokesperson, even though several attempts over the years to do that have failed.
“Through national dialogue, we will reach a consensus on how to govern ourselves, how to lead our cause and present it to the world,” Jamal Nazzal, a Fatah spokesperson and a member of its parliamentary body, the Revolutionary Council, told Al Jazeera.
A unified Palestinian entity is the stated US goal, especially as discussions arise on the fate of Gaza after the war, according to Kenneth Katzman, a senior fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center.
This entity would control both Gaza and the West Bank, accept Israel’s existence and resume Oslo negotiations with Israel, he said, referring to agreements between Israel and the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1990s.
“I think the intent is to get back to where the talks left off,” Katzman told Al Jazeera, adding that they would be the precursor to Washington mediating a two-state solution.
Rafe Jabari, a French-Palestinian political science analyst, agreed that a two-state solution should be pursued after the war’s end but said a new agreement should be drawn up to replace the Oslo Accords because Palestinians were coerced to make too many concessions in that process.
Israel will be unwilling to relinquish control of the lands it occupies, he added, and it will not be able to take out Hamas as it says it wants to. “Hamas is a part of Palestinian society. They can’t eliminate Hamas,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that they’re not just a political wing.
Hamas agrees. “They cannot rearrange the Palestinian house to suit themselves. Hamas will remain, and what comes after Hamas will also be Hamas,” said al-Rasheq, adding that Palestinians would not accept “the US or Israel or anyone else” telling them who should govern them.
“The Palestinian people will never accept an entity that enters Gaza on an Israeli tank,” he said.
Because it is impossible to eradicate Hamas, Jabari said, the group will have to be involved in any post-war negotiations.
“All actors should be involved in the resolution of the conflict,” he said, citing past negotiations in which that occurred even when one party was viewed as a “terrorist group”, such as during the French-Algeria peace agreement in 1962 or, more recently, in talks between the US and the Taliban.
A transition period involving an international peacekeeping force in Gaza was mentioned by both Katzman and Jabari as a possible first step before negotiations.
But, Jabari added, these forces have been abject failures in recent conflicts.
The PA’s waning popularity
The PA’s government in the West Bank is seen by many Palestinians as collusion with Israel.
Much of the frustration is with Abbas, who is seen as weak for not managing to advance any peace processes in his nearly two decades in power, Jabari said. He is also seen as not having advocated enough against Israel’s practices from settlement expansions to harassment of Palestinians, he added.
PA security practices in the occupied West Bank have also been criticised as heavy-handed but, Nazzal said, the PA needs to “restore order and protect the law”.
“Movements of the Palestinian security forces or officials or normal individuals sometimes require security coordination with the occupying power,” he said, adding that everything the PA administers in the occupied West Bank “has to be coordinated with Israel”.
Nazzal distanced Fatah from the PA, however, saying it is “a liberation movement that doesn’t have any sort of contact with Israel”.
Despite frustration with the PA, Katzman said Palestinians who are bearing the brunt of the Israeli aggression may be more disgruntled with Hamas’s actions.
“Much of the Gaza population now realises that Hamas is going to keep dragging them into a war with Israel, and they don’t want that,” he said. “So I think they’re willing to overlook the Palestinian Authority’s faults. I think that’s true for Palestinians in the West Bank as well. They don’t want … forever war with Israel.”
However, al-Reshaq said: “Palestinians everywhere support Hamas more. They see Hamas is working to resist the occupation,” he said, adding that global support for Palestinians has surged in the past few weeks.
‘The beginning of the end’?
With mixed support for the PA among Palestinians, what is the likelihood of it returning to govern Gaza?
Nazzal pointed out that, despite Hamas rule, the PA already runs certain elements of life in Gaza, such as the health and education ministries and the banking system.
Meanwhile, the Fatah movement, he added, is opposed to a future in which Hamas is taken out.“We do not agree on the Israeli military objectives in Gaza, nor can we predict what will be the outcome of this terrible assault that Israel has launched against our people,” Nazzal said.
What Fatah knows, however, is that Palestinians should decide who governs them through legislative elections that secure a path for the two-state solution, he added.
“The only thing that nobody has tried is for the Palestinians to live freely in an independent state of their own,” Nazzal said. “Until that happens, we will keep going from one cycle of violence to the next.”
The US is still ramping up its push for the return of the PA in Gaza, though, and the reasons President Joe Biden’s administration has for this strategy is multifold, Hamayel said.
First is to buy time for Israel to finish its military operations by distracting the international community, he said.
It wants to allow its ally to retaliate for Hamas’s October 7 attacks while coaxing it to think about what’s next, the analyst said.
The White House also wants to keep its regional allies on side, especially as Arab states struggle with their citizens not feeling that they are doing enough to end the Israeli assault, according to Hamayel.
However, he concluded, the PA takeover would happen only if Hamas loses, an outcome still too early to predict.
Hamas, meanwhile, sees weakness in Israel’s seemingly directionless attack on civilians.
“The size of the defeat [on October 7] made [Israel] lose its mind and strike out in any direction with no thought,” al-Reshaq said. “It has failed. It failed on the battlefield on October 7 when faced with the Qassam Brigades, and it is failing now because it is unable to achieve any real goals in Gaza.”
In the event that Israel cannot take Hamas out, the fissure between the two Palestinian political groups will deepen, Hamayel predicted.
Hamas would remain standing, a valiant hero for Palestinians for fighting Israel, and the PA would appear weak, shamed for cooperating with Israel over the years, he said.
That would kick off a vicious cycle of a seemingly weak PA inspiring more settler activity in the West Bank, which would erode the group’s control of the territory more and more, he said.
“This could be the beginning of the end of the PA,” Hamayel said.